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What Does Resilience Look Like?

Authored by

Kathleen Colson
Founder & CEO

Kathleen Colson is Founder and CEO of The BOMA Project and former refugee worker and safari guide who wanted to a see an end to extreme poverty and hunger in the drylands of Africa.

In 2006, Kathleen founded The BOMA Project to disrupt the status quo — the repeated cycles of drought, chronic hunger and dependence on humanitarian aid — by implementing an innovative data-driven poverty graduation program that invests in and empowers pastoralist women to break the cycle of extreme poverty and build resilient households. To date, BOMA has impacted over 86,000 women and children in the arid lands of Africa, and over the next few years they seek to scale their solution through strategic partnerships and government adoption in order to reach one million women and children by 2021.

This post originally appeared on the SEEP Network blog as a part of the WEE Global Learning Forum blog series. See the previous post in this series here

Resilience looks like the BOMA business owners I spoke with on my most recent trip this past March to the field in eastern Africa. In 2011, humanitarian relief aid poured into the region in response to a severe drought, complicated by politics and poverty, that triggered a deadly famine which left 12 million people hungry. But in a small village near Kargi in Northern Kenya — 250 miles northwest of the infamous Dadaab refugee camp — the Falam Business Group was busy selling sugar, tea, herbs and household staples to local residents at affordable prices.

Banaye Hallo is a member of this BOMA business group and a widow who provides for seven boys. “If I did not have this business, I would have to feed my family with relief food,” she told me. “I used to be idle, waiting for aid, but now I am a businesswoman and I work every day. The relief food eventually goes, but the business is here to stay.”

“If I did not have this business, I would have to feed my family with relief foo

“If I did not have this business, I would have to feed my family with relief food.”

Humanitarian aid saves lives during catastrophic events, but as we noted in an opinion piece in response to a recent in-depth story in the Washington Post, true resilience means having the resources to not fall back into poverty. It means being able to withstand shocks and emergencies. For women like Banaye, it means that even when drought or other crises happen, they can continue to feed their families, send their children to school, and cover basic living costs.

During my frequent trips to northern Kenya, I get to see what resilience looks like every day. Since 2013, the BOMA Project has been implementing an arid-land adapted poverty graduation program for ultra-poor women. Global randomized control trials of the poverty graduation model by research organizations like Innovations for Poverty Action have validated the global proof of concept of the poverty graduation approach as one of the best methods for building resiliency among ultra-poor populations.

In the development of our gender-focused adaptation of the graduation model we focused on three pillars:

  • A community-based targeting process that identifies the poorest women, ensuring community buy-in
  • A sequence of interventions over two years that ensure a holistic approach and sustainable success
  • A defined exit strategy and definitions of success based on data-driven graduation criteria

While the elements of the poverty graduation approach are not new — asset transfers, training, mentoring and savings — it is the deliberate sequencing of interventions and the defined exit strategy that break the generational cycle of extreme poverty, creating a sustainable pathway to increased household resilience.

By implementing a gender-focused approach, we can also confirm an extraordinary return on investment for families, communities, and foreign aid investors. Research reveals that women tend to invest more than 90% of their income and savings back into their families and communities, creating an upward cycle of success. As stated in the opening statement of the 2017 Women’s Economic Empowerment Forum, “The advancement of women’s rights and economic empowerment in market systems contributes to the economic well-being of families, communities, and nations.” In highly patriarchal societies, where women’s access to financial resources and tangible assets has been severely limited, a successful poverty graduation program turns women from liabilities to the family and community into important assets.

The Road Ahead

The BOMA Project’s graduation model works. In a comprehensive 2016 exit survey, we found that after two years in our program 94% of women graduated out of extreme poverty; 98% of participants had savings with an average increase of over 1600%; there was a 167% increase in livestock ownership and most importantly, there was an 81% decrease in the number of children going to bed without an evening meal.

That’s what resilience looks like.

BOMA is now focused on replicating our model. Through standardized training tools and strategic partnerships with organizations like Mercy Corps, our poverty graduation program is being scaled and implemented across last-mile populations in East Africa.